Giving Good Food Well

A local food bank and distribution network was featured on a Michigan Radio piece the other day, and it really captures how to give to people in a way that respects their dignity. For one thing, when you are giving food to the hungry, you don’t just hand them wax beans and canned beets.

John Arnold, executive director of Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank, says that people shouldn’t be getting what he calls “bomb shelter food.”

“Products like powdered milk and dry beans and dried noodles sound and look nutritious but you never see in people’s shopping cart,” he observes.

Instead, as Kyle Norris reports, Arnold recognizes that “nobody eats that stuff, but somehow food agencies think that’s what they supposed to give people in need. Arnold says we need to get people good, nutritious food in a way that makes it fun.

Arnold also says agencies have to let people pick the food they want, as opposed to handing someone a box filled with a random assortment of food they may or may not eat. These things aren’t just his personal theories. He points to research from United Way and Michigan State University that backs these conclusions.”

One of the principles of effective compassion is that we are to discern and respect each person’s freedom, constitutive of their dignity as created in the image of God. In this concrete case, it means in part having people exercise their own autonomy and choose their own foods, rather than be handed what someone else assumes they need.

So this is a good rule of thumb for treating others as you do yourself: “When we do care for one another it should be with food we’d want to serve our own family.”

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  • Kathryn

    Wow. Time for me to start going to the Food Pantry for my shopping! You certainly DO see items like powdered milk, dry beans, and noodles in people’s shopping carts or else stores would not sell those items. Grocery stores are an extememly competitive industry with a low profit margin. If an item does not sell and make a profit, shelf space is NOT granted to an item for very long. The dry milk section an my local Kroger’s is fairly small I admit, but not the dry beans/rice and noddle section. Quite a bit of square footage is devoted to both.

    I know those items are in MY cart, although I confess I tend to use canned beans over dried ones. Oh, and canned beets. We eat those too at my house.

  • cpageinkeller

    I am totally with Kathryn on this issue. Food banks should focus on providing the best nutrition for the lowest cost. Basics include powdered milk, powdered eggs, dry beans, dry grains, some flour, sugar, and salt. This is not exactly “bomb shelter food.” Together they represent low-cost staples that minimize shelf space in a pantry – and they have a long shelf life (5-7 years for powdered eggs, longer for both powdered eggs and milk if kept in a freezer).

    The concept of “shopping” in a food bank should be limited to things available to supplement.

    I’ve never received food from a food bank, but my wife and I have been through periods of economic privation. The staples listed above along with seasonal vegetables from a garden represented the bulk of our diet. The meals my wife prepared were always tasty and nutritious.

    I question the “dignity” of anyone unwilling to adjust to a low-cost diet in periods of serious economic stress – even if it means making adjustments in their preferences and deviation from their “cultural” norm.

  • liturgylover

    I’m so glad I’ve had the experience of having to get my food provided by my local food pantry. And I’m so glad that so many people do not have that need as well. My experience was very similar to Mr. Bailor’s article. I never used dry milk, ate canned beets or powdered eggs before I was forced to rely on food pantry food. I also preferred certain brands of foods over others. Both of these behaviors have been necessarily changed and I DO understand that food pantries must keep food on hand that will not spoil quickly. However, most of the food you can get at a food pantry is not conducive to healthy eating–boxed “helper” mixes, potato or noodle mixes, canned vegetables–or one gets a plethora of pasta. After fixing pasta every way I can for 2 months, I am so tired of it, yet I’m sure you would say, “Count your blessings for having food at all!” Well, this is exactly the dignity-demeaning attitude that Mr. Arnold probably runs into all the time and is seeking to change. Be glad you haven’t had to have someone else “dictate” what you can and can’t eat. It’s certainly better than starving, but it is not as wonderful as you seem to think.

  • eyeclinic

    I prefer my wife’s philosophy:”Eat it and shut up about it, or don’t eat it and shut up about it.” I believe that respecting one’s dignity is not the same as respecting one’s preferences.

  • Kathryn

    One more thing I would like to add: we’ve done Scouting for Food for some years now. I usually end up donating things like toothpaste and soap and whatnot since those things are specifically suggested. My husband coordinated it last year, and when it was done, we ended up with some nice fancy jelly. Why? Because the banks around here will not take glass items. No glass items generally means no jelly or pasta sauce–the brands (jelly and pasta sauce) with which I am familiar are in glass. I often prefer frozen to canned vegies. And I would donate those, but the rules prevent it.

    I did call up a local pantry one time to ask what they’d like, and they did mention that they try to make sure there is some kind of goodie in the bags they hand out, so I bought some fancy chocolate. No problems with that. I appreciate what the author is trying to say, but I don’t see any real solution to this problem. Foods have to be non-perishable. That causes significant hurdles and limits what people are able to donate.

    Also remember that people tend to donate what they themselves eat. At my house, Ramen noodles and Easy Mac are can’t-live-without-it items. The fact that food pantries are getting unhealthy processed junk is partly a reflection on the fact that a lot of out here are in fact living on unhealthy processed junk. I’m trying to change that at my house, and if the local pantry wants me to pick them up some (out of season) kiwis, strawberries, apples, and raspberries, I will. But I am not sure they will take fresh fruit.

  • ekbell

    Considering the occasions when I’ve been shortest of money for food, I worry a bit about giving items which need lengthy cooking. I was one of the working poor at one point without a lot of time, storage space or cooking facilities (it’s amazing how much more time everything takes when depending on public transportation and walking).

    Anything requiring a long cooking time (or a oven) would have been quite problematic.

    My SIL who helps at a food band says that it can be a good idea to also contribute money as many food banks have agreements with local stores to get needed items (such as perishables) at cost. And that when cleaning out cupboards and putting stuff aside to please check expiry dates (no one needs a five year old box of instant mashed potatoes).

  • allboys

    It is very easy to donate to the food pantry in this area, since there are collection barrels at the local grocery store. After asking around and getting little helpful information, and inspecting what other people tend to add to the barrel (lots of canned goods and dinner items), I decided to focus on breakfast and lunch items for families with children. My usual donations are large jars of peanut butter and grape jelly (the warehouse stores sell the jelly in plastic tubs), instant oatmeal, healthy but not tasteless cold cereal such as Cheerios, pancake mix (that doesn’t require either eggs or milk), and pancake syrup. Sometimes I also add staples like vegetable oil that many people don’t think of contributing. Any other ideas would be most welcome.